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The Ghost of Tom Joad is the sixth Springsteen studio album to receive the complete Roll of the Dice treatment.
If you’ve joined me along the way of this six-year odyssey, you might find it interesting to explore some of the earlier essays you missed. If you’ve been with me from the beginning, these articles are now updated and crosslinked to help explore the connections, genealogy, and comparisons between songs.
Click the song titles to learn more about the meaning behind and origins of each song.
Bruce Springsteen's eleventh studio album holds a special place in my heart.
It's not my favorite album. In fact, I wouldn't even include it in my Top Five.
It's not his best album, his most artful, or his most memorable. There are no earworms on it, no songs you'll find yourself humming in the shower, no tracks you'll shush your companions over if you were to stumble across them on the radio... which of course, you won't (E Street Radio aside).
And yet, The Ghost of Tom Joad carries a special distinction for me: across the six years I've been writing this blog, it's uncontestedly my favorite album to write about.
Each song is infused with literary, cinematic, or straight-from-the-news influences, and each essay led me on a journey of delight and discovery as I delved into the meaning and inspiration behind each track.
The Ghost of Tom Joad very nearly earns another top accolade: second only to Western Stars, it's easily Springsteen's best-sounding album. While many of its tracks are far from melodious--some resemble spoken-word storytelling--this is a breathtakingly intimate-sounding album that requires over-ear headphones to truly appreciate.
If you've never listened to The Ghost of Tom Joad in a darkened room with over-ear headphones, trust me and do it now. You'll be amazed at the detail you discover in Bruce's hushed, lush storytelling. You'll hear every guitar string pluck from the very first song. And those vocals... it's as if Bruce is sitting right next to us, whispering in our ear. You'll not only hear each word he sings, you'll hear each breath he takes.
The Ghost of Tom Joad is widely considered to be a solo album, but only seven of its twelve tracks qualify as such. The other five feature small combos that include E Streeters Garry Tallent, Danny Federici, and Soozie Tyrell playing with remarkable delicacy. Every musician on the album plays that way. If there's a single word that describes the album's sound it would be: gentle. It takes a close, careful and above all quiet listen to truly appreciate the delicate beauty of this collection.
This is also one of Springsteen's most thematically cohesive albums. At the time of its release in 1995, only Tunnel of Love rivaled it for focus.
The most obvious comparisons, however, are to Western Stars in setting and Nebraska in tone. (Bruce admitted in his autobiography that in writing the album he picked up where Nebraska left off.)The Ghost of Tom Joad is a collection of sober, somber and lonely songs about disaffected and alienated characters in the American West.
But that's not the album's only thematic through-line: almost every track on the album is directly inspired or influenced by the work of another author.
Some are based on actual people, places, and events:
- "Youngstown" and "The New Timer"-- both inspired by the work of journalists Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson and their reporting on the new American underclass.
- "Sinaloa Cowboys" -- a three-act tragedy drawn from a 1995 expose of a Mexican drug cartel by reporters Mark Arax and Tom Gorman.
- "Balboa Park" -- a (barely) musical adaptation of a heartbreaking Los Angeles Times article by Sebastian Rotella chronicling the plight of young, homeless illegal immigrants who turn to prostitution and drugs to survive.
- "Galveston Bay" -- a lightly fictionalized dramatization of the simmering racism that boiled over into tragedy for a Vietnamese fishing community on August 3, 1979
And then there are the songs drawn not from the newspapers but from the fiction shelves and movie theaters:
- "The Ghost of Tom Joad," which draws on John Steinbeck's characters, imagery, and dialogue to question the empathy and character of modern America.
- "Straight Time," based loosely on the 1978 film starring Dustin Hoffman as an ex-con doing his best to keep his nose clean and make ends meet, while temptation constantly beckons.
- "My Best Was Never Good Enough," based on one of the darkest and most harrowing crime novels ever written, Jim Thompson's 1952 thriller, The Killer Inside Me.
We can add another entry to the list if we squint a bit: "Highway 29" is the most Nebraska-esque track on the album. That makes sense when we realize it's a rewrite of a 1982 outtake called "Losin' Kind," that itself was based (according to Bruce) on the crime stories and films of James M. Cain.
Two of the remaining three tracks are based not on written works but musical ones:
- "The Line," melodically based on Bob Dylan's "Love Minus Zero" and a spiritual sequel to Nebraska's "Highway Patrolman."
- "Across the Border," the album's most uplifting track, based on Ry Cooder's soundtrack to the 1982 film The Border.
Although Western Stars and Nebraska are the most obvious companion pieces to The Ghost of Tom Joad, there's one other album in Bruce's catalog that feels almost like a sibling at times: Devils & Dust.
Even though a full decade separated the albums in the marketplace, Bruce recorded them (or most of them at least) contemporaneously. That's probably why songs like "Black Cowboys," "The Hitter," "Matamoras Banks," and "Silver Palomino" sound like they'd be right at home on the earlier album.
I realize we've drawn a spawling map of the themes and lineage of The Ghost of Tom Joad. It's unavoidable, because the album sits at the intersection of several of Springsteen's most prominent songwriting lodes: isolation and alienation, the American West, social and economic injustice, the reckoning of aging, and the role of the successful artist in society. (As Bruce posed it, "Where does a rich man belong?").
Springsteen had been weaving those threads individually and sporadically since The River, but The Ghost of Tom Joad was where they first knit together into a quilt.
The result was an artistic triumph (the album won the 1997 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album) but a commercial flop. It never even cracked the Top Ten on the U.S. Album chart--the only Springsteen album to miss the Top Ten since The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.
Its songs rank among the least-performed, too. Once the album's solo acoustic tour wrapped in 1997, only "Youngstown" and the title track made the transition to the E Street stage, both appearing throughout the Reunion Tour and occasionally thereafter.
And yet, even though I rarely listen to it, I can't help but love it. The Ghost of Tom Joad exposes a songwriter at his most heartful and at the peak of his empathic powers, and for those of us who delight in analyzing and excavating, it rewards with riches and discoveries.
So if you have the time, turn out the lights, draw the curtains, don your headphones, and take a long, luxurious listen--and then take a read through the essays I've linked throughout this article for what I hope will be an even deeper appreciation of The Ghost of Tom Joad.